Dinner conversations can be tricky. Its difficult and rude to talk with a mouth full of chili relleno you know. Thankfully, most of the conversations these days include an ample dose of opinions on the ongoing presidential election circus. It’s easy therefore to just keep eating with only an occasional need to inject political pleasantries. So it was last week when I had a nice dinner with some friends I had not seen in a few years.
The meal was going splendidly when all of a sudden the conversation shifted to faith and religion. Somehow we started talking about to the Creation account of Genesis. Normally this would not be an issue. How God created the universe from nothing is not that important, only that He did. However, in this case one of my friends is what some refer to as a young-earth creationist. He interprets the Bible very literally to the point of believing that God created the world about 10,000 years ago in exactly 6 24-hour days. I deeply respect his Christian faith and his love of Jesus in his life. That said, having just swallowed a bite of chili relleno my mouth was empty and there was plenty of room for me to stick my foot.
When the conversation rotated around to me I simply asked him if he believed that the earth was created in 6 days. He responded with a simple “yes, that’s what the Bible says.” I asked him then how he reconciled the enormous amount of scientific evidence (such as Carbon-14 dating) that indicates the earth and plants and animal species are millions and millions of years old.
As I expected, he started with an affirmation of the unlimited power of God, with which I completely agree.
He continued to explain that because God is omnipotent, He could easily have created rocks that appeared as “old rocks” to the Carbon-14 dating equipment. I nodded in silence.
I then asked him how he could reconcile the cosmological evidence that indicates that the universe started about 13 billion years ago with an event called the Big Bang. Again, he explained that through God’s unlimited power, He could create in 6 days and make it look to all scientific methods that it occurred much earlier and took much longer. To that assertion I also completely agree. God could have done anything in any way. I asked why it was important that he believe that creation happened in 6 days. Again he responded by saying : “because that is what the Bible says.” Again, I nodded in silence as I contemplated my next move. There is a time and place to hold religious conversations and this was not one of those so my fork quickly delivered a chunk of cheese enchilada into my mouth. The table conversation rolled on to some new benign topic.
I chose not to press the issue any farther at dinner, but in my mind the next line of questions would have certainly centered on the Eucharist. Being of the evangelical/fundamentalist persuasion, I’m pretty sure my friend believes the Eucharist is merely symbolic and provides no spiritual value. I wondered how a young earth creationist who interprets the creation account so literally came to understand and would defend the Eucharist as purely symbolic.
In the proper setting, I would have asked him about the Gospel of John, Chapter 6 verses 26-69 which is commonly referred to as the Bread of Life Discourse. Remember that the Jewish feast of the Passover was near and Jesus had recently fed 5,000 with a couple of fish and loaves of bread. This food was the physical food that kept those followers alive, but it pointed at something greater. Jesus begins by scolding those that are concerned with food that perishes rather than food that endures for eternal life (Jn 6:27).
When asking for signs to support their faith, the people reference manna from heaven. In verse 35 Jesus then states, “I am the bread of life… [that] came down from heaven”. The people cling to their disbelief pointing out that this Jesus-guy was the ordinary son born to Joseph and Mary. But did Jesus back down? – did Jesus soften the rhetoric? Did Jesus give any indication that He was speaking metaphorically? No! – He actually amplifies His language [emphasis added]:
48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; 54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.
When Jesus says, “eat”, the word in the Greek translation changes from phago (v50,51, 53) which means generally to eat, to trogo (v54) that means something more like to gnaw or to chew. We can clearly see that Jesus wasn’t backing down but was using more explicit language to ensure that his followers knew He was not speaking metaphorically.
Also, in verse 66, some of the followers, finding these teachings repulsive and difficult, decide to abandon Jesus. Did our Lord stop them and say, “Wait a minute, I was speaking in metaphors! Come back!” No, He let them go, because He spoke plainly; He knew they understood and they used their free will to reject His specific teaching. It is clear that the teaching wasn’t difficult to understand. They understood completely. The problem was that the teaching was difficult to accept.
Finally, I would ask my friend about the Gospels that describe the Last Supper where Jesus again declares the bread and wine to be His actual body and blood. [Emphasis added]
26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” (Mt 26:26)
22 And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” (Mk 14:22)
19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which … .” (Lk 22:19)
At this point, my friend would probably point out that Jesus often taught using parables or figures of speech, such as “I am the vine” or “I am the door” or “born again.” This is absolutely true, however, on these occasions the language of metaphor was used to make difficult or obscure ideas more clear. It seems preposterous to claim that Jesus used symbolic language such as “eat my flesh” in John 6 , or “this is my body” in the Gospels listed above to make an otherwise clear symbolic idea completely confusing.
I would also ask how he could tell that the creation account is clearly literal and the Bread of Discourse and the Last Supper Gospels are so clearly symbolic? How can he be sure of the difference especially when the consequences are vital to our eternal destiny? I hope my tone would not be confrontational, just respectful and challenging, encouraging him to reexamine the basis of his faith conclusions.
I thank God each day for giving us the Church that teaches and guides us to the truth. We don’t have to rely on our own interpretation that is so frail and prone to error. Thank God I stand on the side of Scripture, Tradition and history. Thanks to the teaching of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church that Christ founded, I know that the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist is truly, truly the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus.